The power of ‘funny’ in charity videos

I love this video by WaterAid and I think it’s such a worthy finalist for The Golden Radiator Awards. 


It’s a great example of how charities can be bold and use humour to get a taboo message across.

As the judges said ‘It’s funny and therefore shareable’.

And what’s more, they’ve used a clever call-to-action to get people to sign a petition at the end. A quick and easy way you can show your support for the charity as soon as you’ve watched the video.



5 Things a 19th Century Folk Song Can Teach Us about Telephone Fundraising

As well as writing for Pell & Bales, I’m also a keen folklorist.  Recently, I noticed that one particular folk song works by using very similar principles to the ones I use when writing telephone fundraising scripts.

The song in question is a broadside ballad, historically written to relate news updates, generally with a particular viewpoint in mind.  People would only ever hear the song once, so it had to be immediately effective and memorable.

Sound familiar?

To get the proper experience, listen to this performance of the song through once now, before reading any further.



What stood out? How do you feel afterwards? Similar to how a supporter feels after they’ve had a fundraising call, I think. Powerful, wasn’t it?

But what exactly makes the song so effective? How can we use this to make sure our fundraising calls are just as powerful?


1. Keep the topic simple and the content focused

Firstly, the topic.

It’s so effective because, even from the briefest possible explanation, it’s obviously a bad thing. People died in a fire. There’s no room for doubt.

Remember, someone would only hear the song once.

It’s not the place for nuances, or for in-depth explanations about why something is in fact a bad thing.

You also might’ve noticed that the song didn’t go into a lot of detail – there wasn’t much in the way of set-up or context. The topic’s so simple, it wasn’t needed.


2.Tell in terms of an individual, personal story

Now, the content itself. What made the disaster so compelling and relatable?

It was all told through an individual story. (It was also particularly effective because that individual was a young girl, with her whole life ahead of her.)

Granted, some would say the story’s a tad on the melodramatic side, but that’s not a bad thing. When it’s only going to be heard once, it can’t be too subtle or it’ll get missed.

Noticeably too, it’s (mostly) just the one story, developed in steps over multiple verses. This keeps the focus, and builds on what’s been said already rather than having to start from scratch multiple times.


3.Use a strong image for each part of the story

How was that individual story told in such a compelling way?

You saw the whole thing.

It might’ve been told only using words, but every stage of the story was based on a very powerful, striking image.

This is made possible by the simple and focused subject matter – a strong image can get across most of what needs to be said.

By anchoring the emotions of each stage of the story with an image, those emotions will stay with you.


4.Don’t let statistics distract from the main story

Do you remember how many died overall?

The answer here is “too many”. That’s the key thing.

The song does give a number, but the number isn’t what sticks. It’s the individual story.

The figure itself was very unobtrusive – a simple, rounded number, just indicating the scale. You didn’t have to stop and think about it, so it didn’t distract from the impact of the story.

One identifiable person is enough. When listening, statistics don’t have much impact unless they’re in immediately relatable terms.


5.Provide a clear, socially proved call to action

Lastly – what was the song aiming to achieve?

On the surface, it’s to inform people about the disaster, but really it’s to inspire action. In this case, forming a certain opinion.

So which part was the call to action?

It’s the chorus. It repeats, so it gives the listener a few chances to respond. It’s essentially the same, but each time the verse has developed it further, and it follows logically. Each time, it works as a focus, a clear summary.

It might not be asking for a direct response, but it is aiming to motivate you to do something. Implicitly, it’s asking you to agree.

The way it asks is also particularly effective: to join someone else who’s already doing something positive and affirming. This is social proof.



IFC Round-Up 2013

So it’s that time of year again: time for another IFC round-up blog. So what were the theme’s from this year’s conference? I think they were;

  • Engagementwith regards to driving loyalty and life-time value. Interesting these sessions were as focused on our own personal engagement as a fundraiser as much as donor engagement (after all – if I’m not passionate how can I expect my donors to be?)
  • Emotional Fundraisingreplacing ‘storytelling’ as the new buzz word: the next thing we all need to learn to do differently, properly. Now that it’s beyond question that emotions not reason drives decision making we as sector need to understand what we really mean by emotion (it’s not always just sentimental). And boy is Charlie pleased to have the masses talking about this at last!
  • Impact – how do you demonstrate impact: as an organisation and as an individual.
  • Integration from acquisition to retention we saw example after example of the best results coming when we speak to donors across multiple channels.
  • Risk Taking – the need for the sector to innovate, to do it faster and bolder (and be donor led in this). Tony Elischer challenged why we would even have 5 year strategies and went as far to suggest we should be all be working to a 3 month strategy

Great stuff. All important. But if you read blogs and know the sector well then you’ll probably know these themes well too. Haven’t we all been talking about this stuff for a while?

Unfortunately the conference didn’t move us on too far from talking about why we should do these things to how. More debate is surely needed about the barriers to change in these areas. After all, who wouldn’t want to conduct more innovating, rewarding and successful fundraising – so what’s stopping us?

Is it that we need someone to show us how – in part yes – we have a culture in the sector of waiting for someone else to test first – but that is why innovation was a theme, we need to break away from this thinking. The evolution from talking about ‘innovating’ to ‘risk taking’ this year is significant and very helpful: It’s not about having processes and structures in place to ‘innovate within the work place’, it’s about growing some b*lls and trying something different!

There was one very useful session that did show how it can be done. It was Suzanne Cole Nowers session entitled ‘What you can learn from US political fundraising’. Suzanne showed us a different way of fundraising: truly engaging, impactful, emotional, ballsy fundraising. When sharing how the US 2012 election raised over six billion dollars in a matter of month’s she shared 4 secrets of US political fundraising;

  • Research – know your public/donor. Listen to them, carry focus groups, tele-focus groups and surveys
  • Testing and risk taking – Suzanne talked about never ‘rolling out’ and how what worked last month probably won’t work this month. She compared political fundraisers to bungee jumping addicts when referencing their approach to risk taking
  • Urgency – in the messaging, action and risk taking. Suzanne talked about ideas in the board room being tested 2 hours later
  • Multi Channel – political fundraising campaigns are always integrated and results maximised by reaching out to people across multiple channels – from knocking on their door, to phoning, mail, online…you name it they do it!

Suzanne also joked that a further secret to success was that they don’t have to consult a brand team (there isn’t time), but I’ll leave Charlie to pick up that subject for a different rant on a different day!

So there were a few ‘How To’s’ courtesy of the US candidate race. But I fear we could have examples of ‘a different way’ coming out of our ears and many would still struggle to change, innovate and engage our donors. As I voiced in a recent article for Civil Society, in order to see real change;

  • There needs to be a cultural shift amongst trustees, CEO’s and senior managers away from fundraising being perceived as a sideline that finances the mission to placing fundraising and engagement of the public as a central and integral part of that mission
  • Fundraising needs to be restructured away from silos and towards relationship marketing teams and product & innovation teams
  • A significant increase in the quantity and quality of research – given the size of the sector the amount of research being conducted to understand supporters, how they give, how they want to give and engage is meagre.
  • A genuine shift from transactional to relationship fundraising: listening to people and how they want to support you and develop the processes to manage and support what they want
  • An acceptance of risk and failure. Developing alternatives to Direct Debit giving will require investment and innovation that will have as many failures as successes. But currently whilst a trajectory of decline is accepted for DDs, failed campaigns and new ideas are not.

You’re Being Irrational

For a sector born of raw emotion we’re surprisingly ‘rational’ in the way we view donors. Trouble is donors, a.k.a. people, aren’t rational.

The inherent contradiction undermining our sector is we’re trying to fit all the raw emotion, passion and drama that drive our causes (and donations!) into a behavioural model that’s rigid, mathematical and outdated. Campaigns are designed to appeal to people as we think they should act, not as they do.

Standard behavioural models based on classical, or standard, economics give us a delusory comfort zone. Algorithms neatly package people into an excel sheet, where it’s assumed people are logically evaluating everything, making informed choices based on all the information. What it doesn’t do is look at human nature which is often impulsive, short term and arbitrary.

That’s where the science of Behavioural Economics comes in. It studies actual as opposed to idealised thought processes and behaviour. This isn’t fuzzy theory, its neuroscientific fact. Behavioural Economics leading voice, Daniel Kahneman, won a Nobel Prize for his work. If you’ve read my review of his seminal work ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ you’ll remember his classic example of the difference between how we see things and how they really are. Take a look at these two lines…


Clearly line A is longer than line B right? Wrong. The horizontal lines are of identical length. Now you know the lines are equally long and if asked you’d say what you know. But you still see the top line as longer. You cannot decide to see the lines as equal. As Kahneman says “…we can be blind to the obvious but we are also blind to our blindness.”

If we can make such a fundamental mistake about something as simple as the length of a line, what other assumptions could we be getting wrong? Segmentation? Communication? Motivation? Asks? Frequency? The list goes on and on. As fundraisers we have to ask these questions and challenge outdated assumptions. We need to start by constantly reminding ourselves that a huge proportion of our sectors income is based on a premise that isn’t rational to begin with.

Giving isn’t rational. It’s beautiful, commendable, noble, but not rational. If it was, if the decision to donate was based simply on a cost benefit ratio, we’d tackle the world’s problems one at a time until they were all solved.

The decision to donate is an emotional one, and neuroscience has proved that emotion and reason can’t co-exist. When the neurons driving emotion are fired up they suppress the ones used to reason. Reason kicks in after the fact to justify the decision we made.

The emotional part of the brain is much larger than the rational. The signals that run from the emotional brain to the rational outnumber those running in the opposite direction by a ratio of 10 to one. (Yet you’ll still hear people claiming their donors are “rational”, as though supporting their charity gave them immunity from neuroscientific fact!)

Standard economics turns a blind eye to all of this. But the beauty of behavioural economics is that despite our surface level irrationality, we’re fairly predictable if you know what you’re looking for. For a great introduction and insight into the subject I highly recommended the work of Dan Ariely, starting with his book ‘Predictably Irrational.’

After all, if giving isn’t rational then we’re irrational to plan and communicate as though it was!


Six words away from free money

once upon a time

Ernest Hemingway was once bet that he couldn’t tell a story in 6 words – he took that bet and won with this short sombre story…

 ‘For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn’

This summer RNIB asked staff to draw on their own life experiences and enter a six word story into their very own storytelling competition – ‘keep calm and carry on storytelling.’ I was proud to be asked to help judge the winning entries. Here are my top five;

  1. Sight lost, RNIB found, future reclaimed!
  2. I never saw ‘till I couldn’t.
  3. Helping people see those who can’t.
  4. Slight sight gives you insight.
  5. Two kidneys. One brother, one each

What’s your story (your’s, your beneficiaries or your charities)? Can you sum it up in six words? If so tweet us your story to win a donation for a charity of your choice! Best story and winner to be announced this Friday!

If you’re not inspired then nor is your supporter

Here’s a recent news story showing how storytelling changed an organisation and the lives of the people it served.

Far too many people using Manchester’s mental health and social care services weren’t getting the help they desperately needed.  Complaints about care, communications and staff were massive but nothing was changing.  Each month the board met, looked at the numbers, did the maths and carried on as before.

nhs image

Until the Head of Patient Experience took action.  He made a series of short films of service users telling their story, and took them to the board. In his words “…there was pure silence in the room. We saw people rub their eyes, and look around the room awkwardly. It was clear then that we’d made the emotional connection between the service user and the board.”

These films are shown once a month at board meetings and throughout the organisation. Since they started they’ve seen a massive 45% reduction in complaints about care and a 20% drop in complaints about both communication and staff attitude.  Hearing the stories behind the statistics galvanized the board to take action.

Our sector needs to do the same. The ‘Great Fundraising’ report issued by Clayton Burnett earlier this year found many organisations had failed to meet their fundraising targets for several years.  It had got to the point that it was now assumed the target would not be met and that it was acceptable not to meet it!

Acceptable not to hit target?!  Look into the eyes of your beneficiaries and say that!  The trouble is too few of us do.  Let’s learn the lesson from Manchester’s mental health and social care services and stop hiding behind statistics, mission statements and jargon.  After all, if these things don’t move us how are we ever to move the public?

Has Our Message Stuck?

Everyone knows that to be an outstanding fundraiser you must be an outstanding storyteller. But that knowledge isn’t nearly enough because…

i) Everyone knows it so everyone’s doing it.

 There are 180, 000 registered charities, with countless more too small to register. Last year our sector sent over 166 million pieces of DM.  Millions more conversations are held on the street, door and phone.  And you can’t blink without being asked to text a donation to something.  All try to tell their story to a diminishing number of donors who’ve heard it all before.

ii) We don’t just compete with each other.

How many adverts do you think you’ll have seen by the end of the day? 50? 500?  The answer, on average, is 1600, and yours is just one of them.  As the great George Smith said “The consumer does not separate the commercial mail from the fundraising mail and save the latter for more earnest consideration. Junk mail is junk mail, no matter how diverse the motives of the mailer”.

iii) Knowing you have to tell a story doesn’t make you a storyteller.

We have access to the most powerful, emotive stories on the face of the earth. But we’re not very good storytellers. A recent Ph.D. study of over 2000 online and direct mail fundraising documents concluded the way we communicate is “…overly formal, cold, detached, and abstract.”

How can we get it so wrong? In our rush to tell a story we forgot it’s not a story at all.  Before you wrote it someone lived it. But the raw authentic voice of our beneficiary is sterilized because we worry it won’t be signed off. Emotional impact is lost because beneficiaries are off brand.

Fundraisers face these obstacles every day. So, along with my friend the brilliant Lucy ‘Innovation’ Gower, I presented proven principles on how to overcome them at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention. Being voted by my peers as a top speaker has made my Monday. But the real reward will be hearing from those who’ve used the session to make their fundraising stand out…